Farmington Valley: Dale of Discovery

By Dorothea S. Michelman

Mention Connecticut’s Farmington Valley, and visions of neat, white-steepled churches, the vibrant hues of New England’s fall foliage and perhaps a horse-drawn sleigh ride along a winding road may well come to mind. Just a few miles west of Hartford, and a two-hour drive from either New York City or Boston, Farmington Valley presents the perfect rural retreat: miles of trails to delight hiker and biker, kayaking and tubing for the water enthusiast, and even hot-air ballooning for the aerially inclined. Yet this tranquil valley with its rolling hills, rustic barns and romantic country inns once played a far more critical role than that of vacation destination, for it is home to Farmington, Connecticut’s “Grand Central Station” in the Underground Railroad and home to three centuries of American history.

Founded in 1640, the town of Farmington played a pivotal role 200 years later as a major stop in the Underground Railroad system, which provided a series of safe havens to fugitive slaves in their flight to freedom in Northern states, Canada, or points beyond. The runaways were assisted by “conductors” who brought them to private homes, barns or churches where they could hide until it was possible to continue northward. Such an operation demanded secrecy on the part of the free African Americans, Native Americans and whites helping fugitives, as they could be charged with breaking the law. For historians, yesterday’s requisite silence has complicated efforts to precisely document each of the Underground Railroad stations; some buildings’ inclusion on Connecticut’s Freedom Trail is thus based on long-standing oral tradition rather than written records.

Of special note is the First Church of Christ, Congregational, built in 1771 and closely tied to the events following the Amistad rebellion of 1839. Aboard the Spanish schooner Amistad, 53 Africans kidnapped from their homeland seized control of the ship en route from Havana and attempted to sail home. Captured again – this time by the U.S. Navy – the Africans were imprisoned in New Haven, their fate becoming a landmark legal case, and it was not until March 1841 that they were declared not slaves but free. Among the abolitionists aiding the Africans during their imprisonment were Farmington residents. Once the prisoners – including three children – were freed, they were welcomed to Farmington, where church members provided clothing, housing, and education. Living here for the next eight months, the Africans studied, farmed, and raised funds for the journey home to what is now Sierra Leone. A reconstruction of the Amistad itself can be seen in Mystic Seaport.

For earlier generations of American travelers, a sojourn in Farmington Valley often included a respite at the Phelps Tavern in Simsbury, established in 1786 and now a museum offering a fascinating glimpse into the role of taverns in early New England society. Connecticut law required each town to provide at least one tavern for the accommodation of travelers, but the tavern was far more than a stagecoach stop. This was where local residents met to socialize with their neighbors, catch up on the latest news, and take care of such practical matters as postal services and tax collection. Even court hearings took place here. So the tavern was the place where every element of colonial society was likely to meet: from locals to itinerant merchants or traveling entertainers who provided welcome diversion from day-to-day life.
To see the style of residence some colonial travelers might have come home to, the 1720 Stanley-Whitman House in Farmington is one of the best-known examples of early New England framed architecture, displaying elements of both 17th- and 18th -century architectural styles. The house, which interprets 18th-century Farmington history and culture, features educational programs and special events, where children and adults can enjoy open-hearth cooking, candle making, and other activities from the everyday lives of colonial residents.

We were especially pleased to discover the Children’s Please Touch! tour, designed for children aged 5-13. In each room of the house, children are introduced to a basket of treasures or other objects to touch and examine while learning about life (and children’s chores) in a colonial family – a museum where children can stop and smell the spices as well as the antique roses in the gardens outside.

Not far from Simsbury is East Granby, site of North America’s first chartered copper mine and colonial prison. Named for the notorious prison in London (demolished in 1902), New-Gate became Connecticut’s first prison in 1773, with felons incarcerated below ground to work the earlier copper mine – on occasion digging escape tunnels rather than copper.

By the late 1800’s, the beauty of Connecticut’s countryside coupled with its proximity to New York and good rail connections proved irresistible to numerous American Impressionists, some of whom never left. Today’s visitor is invited to explore the Connecticut Impressionist Art Trail, ten museums holding some of the world’s finest American Impressionist paintings as well as the French Impressionist art which originally inspired this country’s Impressionist movement.

One of these is Farmington’s Hill-Stead Museum, an imposing Colonial Revival mansion built in 1901 by Cleveland iron magnate Alfred Atmore Pope and his wife Ada to display their outstanding collection of French Impressionist paintings by Monet, Manet, Degas, Whistler and Cassatt, which still hang amidst the original furnishings.

Outdoors, a centerpiece of this 152-acre National Historic Landmark is the Sunken Garden. The Sunken Garden Poetry Festival is a summer-long event featuring well-known writers and musicians, but whatever the season, it’s the perfect spot to linger and contemplate the beauty all around, with woodland trails and plein air painting opportunities beckoning just a few steps away.

And what visit to Farmington Valley would be complete without a peek at antiques? For a closer look, plan on a Saturday evening in Canton at the Canton Barn, built in the 1820’s and one of New England’s last auction halls.

Auctioneers Richard and Susan Wacht welcome guests to the 5 p.m. pre-sale inspection before the auction begins. At 7:30, you may hear Richard call out: “A very fine turn-of-the-century chest. Do I hear $300, do I hear $320? Is there an advance? Sold for $320!” In true country-auction barn style, a pillow placed on a chair reserves your seat – with a full house nearly every week, pillows move quickly, as does food from the bustling auction hall kitchen.

IF YOU GO:

For further information, contact the Farmington Valley Visitors Association, 5 East Main Street, #3, P.O. Box 1491, Avon, CT 06001; Tel. 860-676-8878; Toll-free: 800-493-5266’ www.farmingtonvalleyvisit.com

ACCOMMODATIONS:

Farmington Marriott Hotel, 15 Farm Springs Road, Farmington, CT 06032
Tel. 800-228-9290
The Simsbury Inn, 397 Hopmeadow Street, Simsbury, CT 06070
Tel. 800-634-2719
Dutch Iris Inn Bed and Breakfast, 239 Salmon Brook Street, Granby, CT 06035
Tel: 877-280-0743.

RESTAURANTS:

The Pettibone Tavern, 4 Hartford Road, Weaoque, CT 06089
The Grist Mill Cafe Restaurant, 44 Mill Lane (off Route 10), Farmington, CT 06032
Metro Bis, 713 Simsburytown Shops, 928 Hopmeadow Street, Simsbury, CT 06070

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